How to Choose a Medical Alert System
The top performers in our review are Medical Guardian, the Gold Award winner; LifeFone, the Silver Award winner; and Bay Alarm, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 systems.
Medical alert systems are simple, easily accessible devices that can make a world of difference in a medical emergency. These devices allow you to contact emergency services in the event of a fall or other emergency. Whether you are a senior looking for extra security, a family member concerned about an older or disabled adult living alone, or a chronically ill individual wishing to give your family some peace of mind, you can benefit from considering a personal emergency response system. In our medical alert reviews, we looked closely at how effective each medical alert system works and compared the results.
How Do Medical Alert Systems Work?
In an emergency, you or your loved one presses the button on the pendant, which sends a call through the base station to the system’s monitoring center. One of the center's staff answers the call and, using the pendant’s speakerphone, asks if you need help. If you do need help or can't answer, the staff either contacts your emergency contacts, such as family members or neighbors, to have them come to check on you or alerts emergency medical personnel to go to your home.
Do I Need a Medical Alert System?
Many people may discount the need for a medical alert system. You might say, “I’m not old enough” or “I’m perfectly healthy right now.” Despite what many people think, personal medical devices are not just for the elderly.
These personal medical alert systems are good options for those who want to live independently but may have chronic illnesses or long-term disabilities. While the main market is still for senior alert systems, other groups find them useful.
Ailments affect any age group. While most of these individuals live full, independent lives, the disease can take a turn for the worst or flair up at any moment. For example, if you over exert yourself one day or let your care lapse, you might find yourself in a life-threatening situation, needing immediate assistance.
Furthermore, you or a loved one may have been born with a disability or developed one over time. You may be an otherwise healthy individual, though many disabilities increase the changes for serious falls, seizures or strokes. Having a personal alarm system allows you to continue to live independently but call for help when you need it.
Components of a Medical Alert System
A medical alert system comprises a base station, typically connected to a phone line, along with an emergency pendant that you wear at all times. The base station stays in the same place in your home, preferably within range of where you are most of the day. You wear the pendant either on your wrist or around your neck, wherever it is most comfortable and easily accessible for you.
Your base station is the epicenter of your medical alert system. The base station connects to your service provider via a landline or a cellular network. These stations have ranges between 300 and 2,000 feet, so there is plenty of wiggle room when determining the system that works best for you.
Medical Alert Device
Your medical alert device pairs with your base station and is with you at all times. Common choices in medical alert devices include wristbands and necklaces. Both are fully functional, so choose the one that is best for you. The above-mentioned range applies to how far away you can take this device from the base station. Any further and it will have difficulty sending the emergency signal when you push your help button, potentially not sending it at all.
When you activate your help button, it alerts your service's call center. A trained operator will pull up your file and speak to you through the speakers and microphone in your base station. If the operator cannot confirm that you are all right or what type of help you need, he or she will send emergency responders to your home.
When choosing a service, make sure that the call center has fully trained staff prepared to deal with emergencies.
Establishing emergency contacts is an important part of setting up your medical alert system. This is whom the center will call if you are taken to the hospital or need medical assistance for non-life-threatening situations.
There are many areas to consider when deciding your emergency contacts. Make sure it is someone that you trust with your medical information. Additionally, make sure it is someone who is frequently available; you need to rest assured that your first contact will also respond in a timely manner.
Another option is to legally authorize a medical proxy and assign them as your emergency contacts. This person will be able to make emergency medical decisions in your place if you are unable to do so.
Why Use a Medical Alert System?
Medical alert systems give family members piece of mind that their loved ones who live independently will be taken care of, and these systems can drastically increase response times in an emergency and improve the chances of recovery.
A medical alert system cannot protect you from danger, but it can save precious minutes in an emergency, which can prevent an accident from turning into a tragedy. According to the CDC, more than 30 percent of people aged over 65 fall at least once. Many of these falls cause hip fractures, which are serious injuries that frequently lead to other long-term damage, disability and admittance into long-term care centers. Moreover, falling is only one concern associated with aging adults. Other concerns include stroke, heart attack and failing to turn off major appliances that may cause fires or other home disasters.
Many personal alarm systems not only alert others to your emergency, but also have add-on features, like smoke and carbon monoxide detection, that give your home comprehensive protection.
Maintain Independence & Save Money
In certain situations, family members may prefer an elderly relative or disabled adult to live with them in a family home or move into a nursing facility. While these concerns are valid, giving up independence is not an easy task. Maintaining your independence increases your quality of life and overall life satisfaction. Having a reliable medical alert device allows you to sustain your independence for a longer period without loved ones worrying about your well-being.
Staying in your own home can also help you keep costs low. Assisted living facilities generally start at around $3,500 a month for a single-room apartment and only get more expensive from there. Medical alert systems bridge the gap between staying home and needing care that is more advanced. While they cannot replace advanced care, they are a reasonably priced option if you do not need constant care.
Increase Emergency Response Times
In emergencies, every second matters. If injured in a fall, it is unlikely that you will be able to access the phone or call for assistance. Often times, adults living alone can go hours or even days before help arrives.
In instances like a heart attack, the chances of survival decline by roughly 10% for each minute a patient goes without assistance from first responders. A medical alert system can set the wheels of care in motion to ensure that this time is not wasted and that assistance is dispatched as soon as possible.
Be Aware of Medical Alert Scams
Popularity of medical alert devices has been steadily increasing as more options are available and people want to maintain their way of life for longer. However, as the medical alert systems market increases, so do medical alert scams and those who prey on the elderly.
Through these medical alert scams, you can have your credit card information and identity stolen. Once you unknowingly give out your personal information to a scammer, it is hard, if not impossible, to get it back.
Common scams include robocalls that offer free medical alert systems. Always be wary of these offers; remember nothing is ever truly free. Another popular method of scamming includes telling you that a friend or family member has purchased a medical alert system for you and they only need some follow-up information to complete the order. Thousands of people are victims of fraud and identity theft every year.
Here are a few ways you can protect yourself and your information against these scams:
1. Be alert. As mentioned above, nothing is ever free. If someone contacts you and is stating that you have won, been gifted or are eligible for a free medical alert system, hang up immediately and contact the Federal Trade Commission to file a complaint.
2. Research your own personal alarm system or ask a loved one to help you. While the idea of receiving a free system may be nice, it is highly unlikely this will happen. In order to ensure your information’s safety when making a purchase, research and pursue it yourself.
3. Never provide any information over the phone to unsolicited callers. Call the company you want to make a purchase from directly to ensure you are dealing with a reputable source.
4. Place your name and number on the national do not call list, DoNotCall.gov. Remember only to use this official government site to register your information. Many do not call sites on the internet are often scams themselves, used as a way to trick you into unknowingly giving your information to solicitors and scammers.
Remember to keep these tips in mind and to educate yourself about scams. If someone tries to scam you, speak out! Tell your family and friends so that they can avoid the same scams and be on alert if they receive calls from scammers asking for personal information.
Contracts & Fees Associated With Choosing the Best Medical Alert System
Cost is a large determining factor in any purchase you make but is especially important when considering something like a personal alarm system. On average, your medical alarm system should cost you around $1 per day. While some add-ons may increase this cost, $1 should be your base number to begin with.
When you purchase a medical alert system, you are actually buying the service, not just an alert device. With almost all systems, installation comprises of simply connecting the base unit’s power cord to an outlet and its phone cord to an available phone jack. Setup should be an easy process, so even those who are not technologically savvy can set up the device without assistance.
Shipping & Activation Fees
Other fees associated with purchasing a medical alert system could include shipping and activation fees. Hidden fees can quickly add up and cost you hundreds of dollars when you sign up for a service and order your devices.
The majority of the services we reviewed do not charge an activation fee when you purchase the service. This means you simply have to set up your device and you are good to go. One service, Life Station, does charge an activation fee when you purchase and set up your device and base console.
Payment Plan Options
The type of contract services offer is another careful thing to consider. You should be able to try a personal alarm system without worrying about being locked into a contract that is nearly impossible to end. The top-rated medical alert systems should offer plans that vary and fit to your specific needs and the demands of your life.
When considering a plan, ask yourself: Does the service try to lock you into a plan or are you free to leave at any time? The best medical alarm systems offer month-to-month plans that give you flexibility. Additionally, you should have the option of paying for a plan on a quarterly or yearly basis; these longer-term plans can save you money in the end as you are often given lower rates for longer terms of service. If you choose this option, be aware that if you cancel after paying upfront, many companies will not refund your money.
You cannot predict when you will no longer need your personal alarm system. Maybe a move or loss of a loved one deems the service irrelevant. No matter the reason, when this happens, you do not want to worry about complications involved with cancelling your service.
Cancellation fees are charged when you cancel a service before the duration of your contract. These fees can range from a one-time charge all the way up to having to pay the remainder of your contract. Before purchasing a personal alarm system, carefully look at the terms of service and ask your sales agent. On our lineup, ADT is the only service that charges a cancellation fee.
In general, most services do not charge cancellation policies and have services that you or a family member could easily install. We omitted from our lineup one service that departed from these norms. Life Alert requires an installation fee to cover activation and a technician who must come install and program the system, along with a minimum three-year contract commitment. There are only two ways to break out of the contract early should you choose the service: either the loved one using the system passes away, or he or she moves permanently to a long-term care facility. A technician must confirm both instances before the contract is ended.
The Most Looked For Features in Medical Alarm Systems
Medical alert systems can vary; some are developed to be senior alert systems while others cater to more general use. No matter your needs, there are some features that you should look for when choosing the best medical alert system.
Multi-Person Medical Monitoring
Extra medical monitoring provided by a service allows you to attain medical monitoring for another member of your household, such as your spouse, without purchasing an additional base unit. With this service, you often purchase an additional monitoring device to connect to your base until and may have to pay a small monthly fee. For example, Life Station lets you add an additional user for a low monthly fee after you purchase another monitoring device.
When you are relying on your medical alert system for emergencies, it is important to know that the system will work in your time of need. Rather than just waiting for an emergency to occur, companies that offer check-in service will periodically conduct routine tests to ensure that your system is still running as it should.
Most services charge additional fees for this add-on service, but the best services on our lineup include check-in service at no additional cost to you.
Often times, you may be far away from your base station when disaster strikes. A voice extender is handy in these situations and may be something you want to consider adding to your service, especially if you are still living in a larger house. Voice extenders include powerful microphones and speakers that ensure you will be heard even when you are not near your base station. These mini-units act as consoles and allow you to speak directly to the monitoring center.
In addition to being away from your base station, there are times when you may not be wearing your device. For example, you may like to remove it when you go to sleep or when you take a shower.
A wall-mounted device is a separate alert button that you station in locations where you are likely to remove your wrist or neck pendant. You can strategically place these buttons to ensuring that you are never far away from help and that you will not need to wear the device at less convenient times.
Comfort and Durability of Your Medical Alert Device
You medical alert device is your safety net if something should happen. This means you will be wearing it around the house, or if you have a mobile-enabled device, if you go to run errands. Therefore, you need a device that fits comfortably and doesn't break down as you go through your daily routines.
Most companies give you the option to choose a wrist pendant or a neck pendant; each device has its own set of pros and cons. While both are easily accessible to users, a wrist pendant may cause irritation on the wearer’s wrist, and, though extremely rare, a neck pendant carries the risk of strangulation if the cord wraps too tightly while the wearer is sleeping.
Another factor to consider includes durability. The medical alert device you choose should be waterproof and impact resistant. You would not feel safe and secure if you or a loved one was relying on a device that is going to break down at the first sign of water or if you accidently drop it or bang it against a wall.
Finally, consider the weight of your device. You are more likely to remove a device that is too heavy or bulky. When you take off your medical alert device, it is less likely it can help you when you need it.
Make sure to choose a device that comfortably integrates with your daily life so that you will wear it around the clock without any issue.
Go Mobile With Your Personal Alarm System
In the technological age, landlines are quickly becoming outdated. Instead of having a set home phone, more and more people rely on their cell phones as their main method of communication. If you have left your landline behind, a medical alert device is still an option.
There are a few different options to choose or combine when you want to connect to your medical alert system using a cellular network.
If you do not have a landline but still want the benefits of a medical alert system in your home, you can set one up using a cellular network. MobileHelp, featured on our lineup, connects you to assistance using a cellular network. With the basic plans, you get one home station, which acts just as a device connected through a landline would.
You also have the option of a mobile device, which carries your signal with you wherever you go and tracks your location using GPS. This is a great benefit knowing your medical alert bracelet or necklace will stay connected to your network. No matter where you go, as long as there is cell service, you can easily connect with the medical alert provider.
Some services allow you to add a mobile application onto your phone that connects with its medical alert system. For example, Lifeline offers an app that is compatible with Android and iOS. You do not need to own a Lifeline home device for this service to work for you.
When you download an app onto your cell phone, you typically pay for month-to-month service, and the service uses your cellular network when you access assistance. There are many benefits to using a mobile app for your medical alert service rather than a bracelet or necklace. For instance, most of us already carry our phone with us wherever we go. By connection your medical alert system to your phone, you are combining multiple services.
Cons of using your cell phone in place of a more standard medical device can include lower-battery power and less accessibility. Many cellphones need to charge every few hours and quickly run through battery power as they are used for multiple tasks. A designated medical alert device has a much longer battery life. Also, while we do carry our phones with us, it may be more difficult to access an app than it is to quickly push a button on your wristband or necklace.
While mobile apps can be a good medical alert option, you need to carefully consider your needs before pursing this route. If you would like more information specifically about medical alert apps, check out our article “Best Medical Alert Apps for Seniors.”
Add-On Mobile Devices
Other services combine these two options. Rather than providing you with a mobile device or an app, they provide one base that in designed for taking with you. While these stations are larger than devices created specifically for mobile purposes, they are much more portable than typical base stations.
LifeFone offers a base unit that runs through AT&T’s 3G cellular network. This streamlines the setup process since the unit runs through the company’s cellular network rather than your landline or mobile network.
Even though these systems are not as mobile as an app, they have a much longer battery life, so you are less likely to find yourself stranded in an emergency. These systems are portable enough to take with you on vacation and set up in your hotel room, though not portable enough to take on a walk.
How to Compare Medical Alert Systems
To provide the fairest comparison between services, we evaluated each using their lowest-cost base station and service, which cost about $30 a month with most systems. However, with all services we evaluated, you can elect to pay more each month to get enhanced equipment or service.
Each service offers similar basic features, so your choice may come down to how well they have performed in our hands-on tests
We describe some of those upgrades below and detail which systems offer them in our comparison chart. However, with two of those enhancements, we have created separate review sites that include more companies that provide systems with those special features. Systems with fall detection promise to automatically alert responders if the wearer falls – a plus should they then be incapacitated – while systems with GPS capability promise coverage even when the wearer roams out of range of the base station.
Medical Alert Systems: How We Test, What We Found
Two key attributes of medical alert systems are the maximum distance from the base station at which the pendant reliably activates the base station and how long the station’s built-in backup battery can keep the unit running in the event of a power outage. Manufacturers provide their own specifications on both, but we carried out our own tests to assess the reliability of that data. To conduct these tests, we acquired each service for a hands-on test. The companies on the lineup had no influence over our results and were not given advance notice of the outcomes prior to publication.
Range of Your Medical Alert System
The companies’ methods to determine their advertised ranges varies; sometimes, advertised ranges are based on a setup where there are limited obstacles, such as walls, that may interfere with signals and therefore reduce performance. To test the accuracy of those figures, we conducted a maximum-range test in an empty field devoid of obstacles. We used the system at progressive distances between the pendant and base station, until activating the pendant no longer reliably sent a signal to the station. The results of those tests: Our figures were sometimes higher than those provided by the manufacturers, with several pendants transmitting as much as twice as far as the advertised figure.
Within your home, you can expect a lower range, which our second batch of tests confirmed. We repeated the range tests in an actual home environment with brick walls (which provide greater interference than the wood and drywall construction of many homes). Unsurprisingly, the measured ranges were significantly lower – about one third of the open-range distances on average. Those systems with the longest indoor tested ranges offer the greatest likelihood, and greatest reassurance, that an alert would get through from even a distant and obstructed area of your home.
Life of Your Personal Alarm System’s Backup Battery
A backup battery for your medical alert system ensures the unit will continue running if the power goes out. Each company provides specifications about the battery life of the station’s backup battery. To verify these numbers and get true results, we conducted our own tests of the systems’ backup batteries.
When we tested these systems, we set up fully charged units and disconnected them from a power source. We then tracked how long a unit could continue to function at capacity without receiving any form of charge. The industry average is about 30; the low end of our lineup, ADT, only has additional battery life of 20 hours, while the longest performing backup, Rescue Alert, lasted 90 hours. It is important to test these features, even when the company provides its own specifications. For example, Medical Guardian states that the backup battery lasts for 36 hours, but in our tests, we found that it averaged closer to 32 hours of battery life.
What Else Is Important in Selecting a Medical Alert System?
While our tested attributes should be leading considerations in buying a system, other features and capabilities should figure in your choice. These additional features are reflected in our scores, recommendations and articles about Medical Alert Systems. Here is a rundown of some of the most important things to consider when choosing a medical alert system.
What Add-ons Are Most Important in Your Medic Alert System?
These premium features are not included in any service’s basic package. Instead, you can select features that are most important to you after you have acquired a service plan from a medical alert provider. This system gives you the option to personalize and pay for features that are most important to you, while avoiding the costs of features that are not applicable to your needs.
For example, if you are purchasing a medical alert system for an elderly relative, fall detection may be high on your list of needs. However, if you are a disabled adult living alone, then other features, like a mobile GPS system or lockbox, may be more important for you.
All systems we evaluated offer 24/7 monitoring service – as in each has staffers around the clock who can respond to alerts. Not all, however, offer the option to provide a translation service should you or your family member use a primary language other than English. Such services all offer support in 150 or more languages. Note, though, that if the monitoring center does not have on-staff representatives who speak the language you need, such services usually require the additional time for the translator to take the user’s comments and translate them for monitoring center representatives, so it’s best to have the user speak English if they have sufficient facility to do so. If multilingual service is important to you, before you commit to a company, make sure it is aware of your language requirements, and note them on your profile, so your user can be connected to a translator as rapidly as possible.
Fall Protection for the Elderly
The now-trademarked advertising tagline “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up” reflects the fact that fear of falls are generally the most common reason families consider getting a medical alert system. Yet a typical system relies on the fallen user being able to press the pendant for help. The wearer may not be able to press the pendant in the case of a serious fall, which might originate from a debilitating medical event, such as a heart attack or stroke, or which may lead to unconsciousness.
Around half of the systems we evaluated offer a feature that promises to automatically alert responders when the pendant wearer falls. With these systems, technology inside the pendant detects that a fall has occurred and immediately sends a signal to the base station. Companies either offer this feature as a package upgrade or as an add-on accessory for a minimal additional monthly fee. Life Alert, which owns the trademark for the “fallen” tagline, is not among the companies that offer fall detection. We did not include it in our lineup, for other reasons we noted above.
While this feature is a great benefit to ensure that you or your loved one can get immediate help during a fall, don’t depend on fall detection as a failsafe feature; the technology does not pick up 100% of falls. You can learn more about fall detection by reading our article about "Medical Alert Systems with Fall Detection."
GPS Medical Alerts
If the system’s user sometimes ventures away from home unaccompanied, you may also want to consider an upgraded medical alert system that has GPS capability. Companies offer these systems as part of package upgrades either alongside a base station unit or as separate packages that work without the need of a base station. Such systems use a combination of cellular and GPS technology to send calls to a monitoring center where they can determine your location to send emergency services. For active seniors or disabled family members who don't want to be limited to their homes, these systems can give you and your family the reassurance that if anything happens, the people you care about can always get help.
Important Security Features for Your Medical Alarm Systems
Security is another component of safety. When comparing the top medical alert systems, it is important to choose one that has add-on features you find valuable. While these features may cost more, they provide necessary monitoring and allow you to streamline multiple services into one device.
Medical Alert Access Lockbox
A lockbox is specially designed to store your house key so that emergency responders can enter your home without having to damage your property by breaking a window or taking down a door. The lockbox, designed to be stored in an accessible location outside of your home, has extra fortification, which projects it against break-ins. The lockbox provided by Alert1 has room for five keys and is reinforced to withstand damage from saws or hammers. An added, non-emergency bonus of this lockbox is the ability to enter your home if you ever lock yourself out.
These systems are typically purchased for a one-time fee, though some services like LifeStation charge you per month. During setup, you give your medical alert provider your secret code so that they can deliver it to first responders in case of an emergency.
Fire & Smoke Alert
Typical fire alarms make loud noises when they detect smoke in your home. Medical alert systems have add-on available that allow you to connect a smoke detector to your monitoring system. Rather than simply alerting you to a potential fire, these systems signal your medical alarm provider.
Bay Alarm Medical provides monitors that are sensitive to smoke, fire and high heat. If the monitor detects any of these in your home, it will emit an alert and send a message to the monitors at the call center.
Carbon monoxide is an odorless gas, dubbed the Silent Killer. This harmful gas kills more than 400 Americans each year and sends another 20,000 to the hospital with symptoms. Individuals with weaker immune systems, such as the elderly, are at a higher risk for carbon monoxide fatalities.
Carbon monoxide detectors identify unhealthy levels of this gas in your house and alert both you and your medical alert system provider to its presence. If the gas has already reached dangerous levels that leave you incapacitated, employees at your medical alert provider will dispatch emergency responders to the scene.
Help & Support in Medical Alert Devices
When you are depending on your medical alert system in an emergency, you need to know that it will come through for you. If you have issues with your device, it is imperative that you can quickly access technical support in case of a break down.
Each service on our lineup offers self-setup; meaning if everything goes smoothly, you can set up and activate the system without any additional help. In addition, each service offers FAQs on its site to help with simple questions.
While these features are useful, the true test of help and support comes when you find a product you depend on not working. For situations like these, you need to reach out through the phone or email. A few companies on the lineup even offer live chat, which can be useful for quick questions or those who are hard of hearing but still need to have an ongoing conversation, rather than waiting for email.
Medical Alert Systems: Our Verdict & Recommendations
Throughout our research, three medical alert systems – Medical Guardian, our Gold Award winner; LifeFone, our Silver Award Winner; and Bay Alarm Medical, our Bronze Award Winner – rose above the rest in our comparison, mostly due to their superior performance in operating range and run times – the factors we weighted most heavily in our rankings. No other systems offered as long an operating range in our simulated home environment. Medical Guardian edges out the other two with the longest range overall.
At least one other lower-ranked system merits consideration. If style counts with you, and you want to save a few dollars a month over the top-ranked services, consider Care Innovations Link. It is a newer med alert system by Intel-GE Care Innovations, a joint company between Intel and General Electric, two leading companies in appliances and technology.
The Care Innovations unit stands out with its base station design. Rather than the typical white- or cream-colored units of most services, the Care Innovations Link base station is a thin black box that can blend in with most appliances, such as an alarm clock or entertainment system. The company also offers a separate GPS-capable unit with different package options if GPS mobility is important to you.
If you or your loved one is in need of a medical alert device, carefully evaluate your options and choose the system that is most compatible with your life. Whether it is a service that offers advanced features or a more simplified version, your medical alert system should provide reliable service that will not fail in an emergency. To learn more about medical alert systems, read our articles about senior care topics and technology.